Tina Smith — a triple amputee whose motorized wheelchair is too heavy and bulky to fit in any of her family member’s cars — waited four hours after work this week for her MTA MobilityLink driver to take her home, leaving her sobbing out of frustration.
The Maryland Transit Administration’s transportation service for people with disabilities has seen a dramatic increase in the number of times it was late picking up riders as the agency implements a new three-year, $299 million contract that revamps its dispatch system. In March, drivers were late for 22 percent of 160,000 trips, up from 11 percent in December.
The agency’s administrator, Kevin B. Quinn Jr., said the situation was temporary, as its vendors look to add 200 more drivers by summertime.
Smith said the problems show “poor planning on their part not to have the foresight to know this was going to significantly inhibit their ability to provide service.”
Problems began last week for Smith. But Wednesday, she said, was by far her worst experience.
A driver was supposed to pick her up at the usual time of 4:30 p.m. outside the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn, where she works as a program analyst. By 5 p.m., she called dispatchers and was told her driver was on the way. An hour later, no one had come. She called again and was told no driver had been assigned to her trip, so she would have to wait at least another hour.
In the end, a driver showed up at 8:45 p.m. and dropped her off at her Perry Hall home at 10 p.m., about 16 hours after she left her house — and long after her husband had tucked their 5-year-old son into bed for the night.
“I give Mobility a lot of passes,” Smith, 38, said. “But I can’t deal with getting home at 10 p.m. every night when I should have been picked up at 4:30 and home by 6.”
Quinn said the concerns are serious and the agency is taking steps to improve the system. The MTA will use two vendors, down from three, to provide drivers to operate its mobility vehicles. The third vendor will switch to running a new operations control center.
Previously, the companies — First Transit of Cincinnati, Transdev Services of Lombard, Ill., and MV Transportation of Fairfield, Calif. — each provided their own dispatch services. MV Transportation will take over that role. That move, Quinn said, is intended to create efficiencies and better service. The MTA also is adding a quality assurance team.
“We recognize the importance of the service to our customers,” Quinn said. “It is absolutely critical to their daily life.”
None of the companies responded to requests for comment.
The state Board of Public Works approved the new contract March 20. The contract could grow to $745 million, if the board extends it beyond 2022 through 2026.
The MTA has given First Transit and Transdev 100 days to hire and train 100 more drivers each, Quinn said. The agency did not provide the number of drivers who were lost in the transition.
MobilityLink’s performance has slid from 89 percent on-time trips in December to 78 percent in March. A driver is considered on time when he or she arrives within 15 minutes of the scheduled arrival.
“We are working with our providers to tackle this and ramp them up as quickly as possible as we go through this transition phase,” Quinn said.
The MTA does not prioritize rides by destination. Riders can call to schedule single trips 24 hours a day, seven days a week to go to the movies or a medical appointment. Or they can set up an ongoing appointment to get transportation to get to work or dialysis, for example. Like the agency’s fixed-route buses, MobilityLink services Baltimore and parts of Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.
Quinn told the Board of Public Works the service has been growing rapidly — with trips jumping 91 percent between 2010 and 2018. He said October set a record for 197,000 trips in a single month.
The MTA said Friday that on an average weekday in March, it provided 6,819 trips with 7,724 riders, including the customer, their caretaker and children.
The state is required to provide the service under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Passengers must go through a certification process to qualify, showing that they have mobility challenges that might give them trouble boarding a standard bus, standing a long time or walking to and from transit stops.
Del. Brooke Lierman, a Baltimore Democrat, said she has been hearing about the service’s increasing unreliability, and has set up meetings with groups that serve people with disabilities to get to the bottom of the problems. She is especially alarmed because the MTA settled a class-action lawsuit in 2017 brought by Disabilities Rights Maryland on behalf of thousands of MobilityLink riders. The suit requires the MTA to provide reliable, accessible services to Marylanders with disabilities, she said.
The suit alleged that the service was routinely late, left people seeking rides on hold for long periods, and denied passage or revoked access with little explanation. The MTA agreed to process applications within 10 days of receiving them and spend up to $160,000 to hire independent consultants to examine MobilityLink, among other improvements.
Lierman said she wants to investigate whether the state Department of Transportation is providing the resources necessary for the MTA to fulfill its obligations.
“We in the legislature may need to get involved to make sure riders’ needs are being met,” Lierman said. “I hope to work with the MTA to effectuate a quick fix. And hopefully we don’t need to put in legislation next year, but if that’s necessary, we certainly will.”
People across the disabilities service community echoed the problems Smith described.
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One day this week, Magtanggol “Bong” Delrosario said his MobilityLink driver was three hours and 25 minutes late to pick him up from work. A week earlier, his driver dropped another rider off a mile from Delrosario’s house in Catonsville, then hopped on Interstate 695 to Owings Mills for a client before turning around and driving back to bring Delrosario home.
“It really has been bad,” said Delrosario, 42, who uses a wheelchair and relies on the service for rides to work at the League for People with Disabilities in Northeast Baltimore.
David Greenberg, the league’s president, said as many as 150 vans and sedans come to the Cold Spring Lane center each morning and again at night — and “we’ve noticed a lot more delays and rides unexpectedly canceled and drivers saying, ‘I don’t know who I am here to pick up because the system is down.’”
He said he is tracking the problems to bring to the MTA.
Like most riders, Crystal Stephens, 38, builds in a cushion anytime she uses the transit service. She gets picked up at her house in Parkville at 6:21 a.m. to make it by 8 a.m. to her job as a receptionist at The Arc Baltimore’s employment center in Northwest Baltimore. But in the past few weeks, Stephens, who uses canes to walk short distances, said the service has been a gamble: “Sometimes they’re on time. Sometimes they’re not.”
Her boss, Don Watts, who runs The Arc’s employment center, said many of its workers use MobilityLink to get to their jobs.
“It’s very disruptive,” said Watts, adding that he was dismayed that the MTA did not effectively communicate to the riders that there could be a disruption in services. “The last couple of years, Mobility has been incredibly reliable. To see this downturn, we all expected it to get better and never thought it would linger like this.”